It’s not you, it’s me

Yesterday I had a rejection in – hang on, it was over email, I can check the details. Right, nine minutes. That’s nine minutes from my pitching to my being told nope.

It actually stung a little, I’m surprised to say. I wouldn’t have pitched if I didn’t want to do it, but it was something I fancied doing rather than something I needed. But, I realise now, I was profoundly tired when I emailed. In other circumstances I can see that exhaustion would’ve made my pitch poorer, but this was quite a simple one.

What the exhaustion did was let the rejection stick in my head far more than it should, it let the rejection colour the rest of the day.

That’s not the problem, though.

The person who rejected me did so in nine minutes, did so quite thoroughly but was just straight, just told me no and why, there wasn’t any flannel. She was a pro and she treated me as one. I’ve no complaints about being rejected or how it happened.

I have a wee problem with the exhaustion as that’s happening too much lately. Hang on, let me check another detail. Okay, this one isn’t so hot. I’ve only worked 48 hours this week. But the first 29 were last Saturday and Sunday, and those came after a couple of days of driving. I’m making excuses for myself now.

What I have a big problem with is me. And specifically how I decided to pitch to this person something like four days before I did. It sat on my To Do list for four days, or approximately 640 times longer than it took get rejected. I think I probably spent 10 minutes on the pitch – told you it was simple – so my problem is why I didn’t do that four days earlier.

I see a lot of similarities between you and me, and I think we can both take a lesson. We have to get on with things.

And also sleep more.

By gum

This just happened. I’m researching a project – can’t tell you about it yet, sorry – and you know what it’s like whenever you dig into something. You find interesting things.

Usually it’s a little fact, some detail and it Is incredibly exciting to you – though, okay, maybe not to anyone else.

Such as a time I was reading the original typescript of a novel I love but which has a startling mistake in it. A plot mistake, I suppose, but one that made a character so wrong that you just ignored it.

In the manuscript, I found a last-moment change to something else and that fix is what created the mistake later. I ran to the archivists to enthuse. They were very patient.

Anyway, sorry, this is not the kind of thing I just found.

I found chewing gum.

Included in with a letter sent in 1978 is a single, unwrapped stick of chewing gum. It’s a little jokey present to the letter’s recipient, and it fell out of the envelope into my hand 41 years later.

Ewww.

Four-decade-old chewing gum.

Both the sender and the recipient are now quite long dead, I remain upset to tell you, and I’m doing this research at their request.

So I am now the recipient. That chewing gum is now meant for me.

I put it back in the envelope.

Windy dishes

I have a cold. And all night, I've been thinking of you and how I must tell you about a set of browser bookmarks I've got called Windy Dishes.

Only, and I promise this makes absolute sense at three in the morning, this collection of website bookmarks contains a pile of paper notes. Detailed descriptions of work I was doing ten years ago. There's a photograph that I could describe to you in such pixel-perfect detail that I should surely be able to upload it too, except it doesn't exist and it's of an office I've never been to.

It most specifically is not the first BBC office I worked in, but that's what my cold says it is. Speaking of the BBC, this Windy Dishes set of bookmarks also contains an extremely thorough memory of exactly the route out of room 7540 In BBC Television Centre. That memory is correct, that one is real, this truly is the way I would go out of that fantastic newsroom and to the crush bar on a late night shift.

But it's a memory, it's not a bookmark, it's not even a physical thing like the detailed photograph.

Nor, too, is the collection of games that I never had. I'm no gamer, but in this Windy Dishes bookmark set, there are floppy disks with names of games I don't know but apparently remember fondly and anyway can't play.

I don't mean I can't play them because I'm rubbish, I mean they won't start.

And that might be the only solid thing in this whole nightmarish nonsense. We live in a time when we can call up things we wrote ten or twenty years ago pretty much as easily as what we wrote yesterday. Yet we can't always then read them. Documents in WordPerfect or WordStar are preserved perfectly, but can be unreadable.

We can decipher cuneiform scribbles from 5,000 years ago more easily than we can prise a Word 5.1 for Mac document off a floppy disk.

And we can read an email we send ourselves at 4am today which says "tutor if self duster is Windy Dishes" and think ourselves brilliant for deciphering that it means "title of Self Distract [must be] Windy Dishes".

I have a cold.

Count on it

Maybe this is just something male. It feels a bit male. But one way I can make myself feel like I’m getting somewhere, is to count.

Actually, no, hang on, practically every novelist I know has their word count figure in their head. Maybe it’s not just me, not for everything.

But I know my absolute limit of how many words I can write a day – it’s 10,000 words or 20 pages of script, and I can keep that up for ten days straight, after which I am dead for a month. And I know too many numbers.

I know that since September 2012 when I was asked to speak at the PowWow LitFest, I’ve since done a further 667 public speaking engagements. It might only be ten minutes Skyped into a venue, or it might be a day-long residential thing, but I count them all.

And I don’t think it’s any surprise that as a freelance writer, I count my invoices. I don’t really, I don’t go over the totals and remember them, but the invoices are numbered so it’s a bit obvious what the count is.

Whereas this isn’t.

I also count the jobs I do.

That’s harder to define, really, as some of it is quite clear such as ‘writing script X’ is quite certainly a job. I just still do not know what do about counting draft 2.

And then a feature article I write is clearly one job, but a site I write for has me do a particular repeating piece of research and, frankly, I count it if I think about counting it, and most of the time, I don’t.

So this is not really a statistically useful count, and whatever you’re doing today, if you counted each separate task as a new job, you’d get bored very easily.

No, wait, that was a poor choice of words. I shouldn’t have said ‘task’ because any one job can have dozens of tasks in it. Just a sec. Okay, a rough and ready export of my OmniFocus database says I currently have 630 tasks across 55 projects to do.

So that’s not 55 jobs, but it’s also far from 630. Somewhere in the middle is what I call a job. And whatever way I have conjured up of defining that, this is approximately how I count it.

And although I see what we’re doing here as you and I getting to chat, it’s still something I set time aside for every week, so it’s a kind of job. It’s one I look forward to, but it’s a specific thing I do at a specific time of the week. We really, really should do this over a drink some time. You just never answer the phone.

But the reason for wibbling on at you about counting is that this chat right here, this natter with you, is my 1,000th job of 2019.
Counting the number of jobs I do
I did have to cheat a little. I was writing a horrible news story that was going to be the 998th and I knew if I didn’t take care, the 1,000th would come up on me before I noticed and it’d be something dull.

Oh. Or it could’ve been a script I’m writing that I have entirely forgotten to count. Bugger. This count is rubbish, isn’t it?

So I added a new job I was going to be doing yesterday evening, called that 999, and then wrote the subject of this Self Distract so that I could call it 1,000. After that, I did another news story, wrote an article and talked on a podcast, so now I’m up to, what, 1,003.

This can’t matter to anyone. But it’s still useful to me. I like that you’re the 1,000th, it makes me beam. And I also like that whatever cockeyed insane Dewey Decimal System I’m using to count all this, 2019 has hit a thousand jobs.

I constantly fear that I’m not getting enough done, that I am letting deeply precious time roar by and achieving nothing, so being able to see a thousand of anything, helps.

Plus, it turns out that in total, 2018 had 823 jobs. In total. Smug.

Grief: 2017 had 326. Then 2016 was 792.

I’m sure I was counting before then, but since 2016 I’ve been using a FileMaker Pro database I call a Job Book, and finding out those figures for you was more clicking a button and less an extremely pointless, daft exercise.

It’s still a bit of an extremely pointless, daft exercise. But if a poorly-counted number in a database can make me feel happy, I’ll take that.

I didn’t plan this

I appear to be changing, please stop me.

Previously on William Gallagher, I was opposed to planning or outlining stories and scripts. It was better to dive in, start writing, see where you got, and accept or even relish how you had to be willing to throw away a lot of writing.

Only this week, I told someone that if I write 100,000 words and 90,000 of them are rubbish, that’s a bargain. I’ve got 10,000 words I like, and all it cost me was a hell of a lot of time.

I said that in a workshop and even as I said it, since this topic has come up before, I felt my polite brain prodding me to say one thing more. Which was was this: “Of course, everybody’s different, and whatever it takes to get you to the end result is fine.”

Not only did I also say this, I have also said it before, and not one single time have I convinced anyone that I mean it. I do, but I don’t. Not for me, anyway.

Except.

About 15 years ago now, I was in Hollywood – get me – interviewing a producer for Radio Times. On the wall behind him was a breakdown, a kind of basic outline, for the episode of Battlestar Galactica that he was then working on.

And he told me the one thing, the first thing, that made me think outlines and plans have a point. He said you can’t have a blank screen on Tuesday night’s TV, or whichever day it was. Writing to see where you go is fine, but it goes wrong and you have no possible way to guarantee that it will work at all, let alone in time. Outlining, planning, story breakdowns, they get you to the goal in the most reliable way.

Curiously, though, that producer/writer was Ronald D Moore and I can’t remember now whether he told me or I just read it somewhere else, but he had done exactly this thing of just writing to see what happened. But it was under one very specific and unusual circumstance.

Battlestar ran as a two-part miniseries in something like 2003 or 2004, I forget which, and it was an enormous success. Deservedly so: that show is remarkable. But even though its ratings success was so good –– uniquely, the second part’s ratings were higher than the first because everyone was talking about how great it was –– the decision to go to series hadn’t happened yet.

It was going to, there was no doubt, but it hadn’t happened yet. So he couldn’t hire staff, he couldn’t set anything up, and there was Christmas in the way.

So over that Christmas, Moore just wrote an episode by himself, start to finish, no outlining. When the show went to series, that script became the first episode. It’s called “33” and I’m sure you can watch it on some streaming service or other, but you can also read the script right here.

It is a superb piece of work. I remember, so vividly clearly, sitting in a corner of the Radio Times office with a VHS tape – VHS? then? – starting the episode on this tiny CRT television –– CRT? no flat screen? then? –– and wondering if it could possibly be any good. The mini-series was two feature-length episodes and it was all so rich and filmic that it was easy to imagine squeezing it down into a 42-minute episode would lose a lot.

Except it didn’t. I wish I’d written “33” and I’ve rewatched it, I’ve re-read it, many times.

You can tell that in my heart, I still believe in the writing to see where it goes. And you can tell that in my brain, I accept that there are circumstances where you can’t do it.

Only, about six weeks ago now, I finally outlined a radio play script that I’ve been piddling about with since at least 2017, and I did so because writer Alex Townley nudged me into it. And four weeks ago now, I finished the whole play. I don’t mean the outline, I mean the play.

And one week ago, I was struggling with a novel that I’ve been working on for at least a year, and this time it was me who said to writer Alex Townley that maybe I should outline it.

I don’t wanna.

But it’s a story that on the one hand is bleedin’ complicated, and which on the other hand needs the most enormous, huge, gigantic finish. Which I didn’t have. I was writing all this ominous stuff with no idea what I could ever do to pay it off. Until I was piddling about with the outline and I realised what this big ending could be.

Everybody’s different, and whatever it takes to get you to the end result is fine.

Nope, I’m still not convincing.

Slow punctures

I don’t think that it’s very often the case that we stop writing something because of a big situation that defeats us. It’s much more often that something small gets in the way and we’re deflated.

It’s just been a week of slow punctures, for some reason. There was a problem at a venue, for instance, but not only did it work out fine, I didn’t have to do one single bit of the working out. It was all done for me, to the extent that if I hadn’t arrived just when it was going down, there’d have been no way for me to even know there had been a problem.

And it’s not as if it really threw me. By the time the event started, I was Performance William, and the only difference was that climbing up to that was a fraction harder than normal. Even then, it was such a small fraction harder that I’d not have noticed, except that the entire week has been a list of these.

Projects going wrong because I made mistakes, projects going wrong because someone else did. The misunderstood email, the notification on your phone at 3am that you shouldn’t have read and can’t do anything about except worry.

I am really tired this week, and multiple bad nights in a row are not helping. But lying there, thinking about how you and I would be getting to chat now, I did realise a couple of things.

One is that this is a pretty normal week.

But the other is that I’ve noticed it, that I’m embarrassed to say I’ve been grumpy about it, at least in part because I haven’t been writing.

Well, I mean, I have. I’ve written thousands of words, but they’ve all been published. (Around 2,000 is being translated into Dutch even as we speak. That’s new.)

But for about a month up until actually just about the time we spoke last week, I’ve also been writing a play. There is some interest in it, but not much and it’s really just for me. So I hope it will get produced, but right now it was not written on a deadline, it was not published and perhaps this particular one never will be.

I have just been substantially more grumpy since I finished it and have nothing to write except for all these things I have to write. Since I finished it and am not writing anything except for all these things I’m writing.

There’s a bit of an obvious solution though, isn’t there? Screw the overnight Facebook messages, sod all the slow punctures, I need to get the next thing written.

Thanks. That helped.

He said, She said, It growled

Maybe it’s fashion, maybe it’s just right, but at the moment the general consensus is that in good writing, people say things. Say or said. Not enunciated, pontificated, bellowed, whimpered. Just said.

As a scriptwriter, I like that because I think the bellowing and the pontificating and all that should be in the dialogue itself. Let the character speak that way, don’t point at their lines and tell me how I should hear it.

But when pressed on this point in workshops or wherever, I cannot help myself. I always – I’m irritated at me even writing this – I always say that you’re only allowed to use “he said, she said, it growled”.

Now, for one thing, I loathe that I say all that because as you know, there are no rules in writing. Although if you break them…

I also loathe it because it’s a joke based on something so few people can know that it’s impossible to really call it a joke.

You have to know the Target novelisations of Doctor Who.

The thing is, even if there aren’t really that many of us who do, if you’re one of us, you know those books extraordinarily well.

The most prolific writer of the range, Terrance Dicks, died this week and it came as a huge jolt to me. He was 84, I’ve never met him, and yet my head jerked back when I read the news.

And then this happened. Since he wrote something like 60 of these novelisations of old Doctor Who stories, naturally a lot of the covers were being shown on Twitter and Facebook and the rest.

It didn’t happen with all of them, but there are certain covers of his books where I would see the image on screen but I would feel the book in my hand. The weight, the heft, the shape, the texture. I’d feel the book and I’d even feel just an echo of the excitement.

Truly, this little book range had electricity in it. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, you never knew which Doctor Who story was going to be novelised and you didn’t know when. I remember so clearly being on holiday with my family and phoning a friend to ask if a new one was out and, if so, what it was.

It was Death to the Daleks, by Terrence Dicks. Published 20 July 1978.Cover of Death to the Daleks

That’s the thing with Doctor Who, if you can remember even a scintilla about anything to do with it, you can find the full details online. So I didn’t remember the date, didn’t even remember the year, but I remember the sunshine and the phone call and the book when I got home.

I also remember thinking that Doctor Who books, at the time, and in so many cases, were the scripts to the TV show with he said, she said, it growled added in. And that was unfair. It wasn’t always unreasonable –– there’s a ten-part, roughly five-hour Doctor Who story called The War Games whose novelisation is a pamphlet –– but it was unfair.

I know this because since Dicks died, I’ve re-read three of his Doctor Who novels. They’re not exactly long, they’re not exactly hard reading, but I started from nostalgia and I carried on because I was enjoying them.

This would be a good point to say, as so very many other people can and have, that it was these Doctor Who novels that made me a writer. It wasn’t. I’m a writer because of Lou Grant. But there’s no question that they helped.

There’s also no question that they belong to a long ago era. Target Doctor Who books were published when there was no possible way to see a Doctor Who story that aired last week, let alone across the show’s 50-odd years. They were Doctor Who for us, and there is an innocence to that whose loss is hanging a little heavier this week since Terrence Dicks died.

Muse bouche

I’ve got to tell you this today because next week I will ridicule myself for it. Next week I will be telling you that I wrote a script that was dreadful – but today, I’m going to tell you that this script is the best thing I’ve ever written.

We can analyse this predictable forthcoming about-face in some detail at any time or in any psychiatrist’s office of your choosing, but let me instead focus on the one thing that is undeniably good about this script.

It’s done.

Most of the time I’m a rather practical, even pragmatic, writer, in that if I have an idea then I also know that I will finish it. There aren’t a lot of opening scenes or chapters here. I’ll abandon, certainly, but usually the thing I like as much about getting an idea is seeing it through to the end. That applies as much to events as it does writing, but invariably it’s applied to everything I write.

Except I need a word that’s somewhere between invariably and variably.

Because every now and again, there is something that I think is good, that I think I may even be able to do well, but I keep not doing it.

Recently I’ve been talking with a writer who keeps not writing her book, and the discussion becomes one about the business of writing as much as the art. She needs to be in the right place, so to speak, to write this novel, and I absolutely see that – but not if it means it never gets done.

I didn’t believe in the muse and if I now wonder about it, I don’t think muses are on our side.

But there are people who are. I hope that in talking with me, this friend will write more of her novel, not least because I want to read it.

And in talking with people in a particular writer development programme I’ve been on – Room 204 from Writing West Midlands – I’ve written more of this script. So much more that yesterday on a train, I finished it.

I can see me there, stopped at Northampton again, looking at the screen and thinking, really? It’s called Sequences Shortened and the idea came from another friend, radio presenter and poet Charlie Jordan, who mentioned something about her work to me around 2017. It happens to be something I used to do too, back when I was working for the BBC, and it is the tiniest thing, yet it started something that finished yesterday.

You can’t wait for the muse. I don’t know what in the world you can wait for, I just know that on occasion, there are projects that take a long time. Projects that are sweet stones in your stomach, pressing away at you, somehow keeping you in them and yet away from the keyboard.

Writing that scares you, really. And for all that this is a job, I make my living entirely through writing, there have to be things you write that scare you.

I think this one has worked out. If only there wasn’t a book that I was afraid to finish too.

But they tried so hard

There's a quite serious and, I think, important debate about how writers should treat other writers. It's an easy kind of debate, in that the answer is we need to support each other. But, somehow, alongside this necessary point, a question keeps coming up about whether writers should judge each other's work.

Yes.

Everybody else judges everything, and we are all inescapably the subject of reviews whether you've just had a book published, or you've just stepped away from the restaurant table to go to the loo.

You can at least hope that a writer would understand another writer's reasons for doing something, whether they agreed and whether this something was ultimately done well or not. I think the crucial part, though, is that what we must judge is the work.

Not the person.

It is difficult to separate yourself from your work, but everybody else should be able to do it easily. If your opinion is that my last book was dreadful, that does not make me a bad person. It makes me sad, but I'm not going to take it personally – unless you make it personal.

That's a problem. Reviewers and judges can get deeply personal and call into doubt the parentage of a writer. I'd like to think that it is because reviewing is no longer done by a handful of journalists and instead is done by absolutely everyone on everything from blogs to Amazon. But it isn't. It was always like this, we just see it so very much more now because there are so very, very many more reviews.

All you can do, if you're a writer, is ignore it. All you can do, if you're a reviewer or a judge, is stop doing that.

Yet if poorly-written, personally-insulting reviews are a problem, they've led to a solution that is at least as bad. Over the last couple of weeks I've been in conversations with writers who are intractable about how you should review poor books or scripts or films. A recurring adamant point was that you simply shouldn't write bad reviews. If you can't say something nice, don't review it at all.

And there's an idea I keep hearing that you should be nice about a piece of writing because the writer worked really hard on it and it's only fair to remember that.

Oh, bollocks.

What are we, children? Writing is not about two seconds of crayon and a fridge magnet. Writing is hard work, harder than it looks, and if you didn't put any effort into your piece, you shouldn't expect an audience to do so either.

Writing isn't fair and I cannot see a reason why it should be. You don't give someone a good review because it's their turn to have one. And the amount of effort matters only to the person who put that effort in.

This is a side point, but writing this to you, I'm suddenly minded of Carrie Fisher. I remember her saying something on Twitter, complaining really, about how long it would take her to write a sentence. You understood her, you got the point, but still, I'd spend a week per sentence if it meant my sentences were as good as hers.

It's my opinion, of course, that her sentences were a marvel and you might disagree entirely, with no ill feeling between us, just a moment's effort as I delete you from my Christmas card list.

That's the thing about reviews. We treat them as fact, and reviewers often think they are, but they cannot be.

Reviews have to be opinion, it's not physically possible for them to be anything else, but they're also unique, I think, in how the opinion in them works.

Any review of anything at all is automatically going to be coloured by who is writing it. I can't conceive of any way that I would be able to write a useful review of a football match, for instance, because I wouldn't know one end of a football from the other.

Even if that weren't inevitable, though, I would still want it because what I'm looking for in a review is help.

Help me decide whether to read the book, watch the movie, or whatever. There is so much competing for my attention, a review is not some academic formal analysis, it is a service – or rather, it is part of one.

What's unique, I think, is that reviews have to have an opinion, they have to be your own genuine reaction to the thing you're reviewing, but you don't matter. Nobody does or should give a damn what William Gallagher thinks of their work, yet any review that I do has to be my perspective.

If you read me a lot, then, okay, over time you'll come to know how often my opinion matches up with yours, and then you could use me as a quick guide to whether you'd enjoy that football match or not.

Usually, though, we all take a sample. From the myriad reviews, we gather whether something is worth our attention. That isn't fair, we should gather this from watching or reading absolutely everything ourselves, but if there is now a cacophony of reviewers in the world, it's still less than the amount of books and films that there are.

If you put something out there, it will be judged. And so it should. If you got no reaction, if you made no connection with your audience, it's tricky to see why you bothered.

Even if you worked really, really hard.

Miss-market paperback

So I was with about 300 writers at this year’s Swanwick Writers’ Summer School for one day this week, meeting them, gassing with them, and running a workshop about blogging with something like 60 people. Name a writing topic, and it came up in the dozens of huge conversations we all go into. But oddly, there was also something that slipped into most of the topics, most of the discussions.

Not true. It wasn’t mentioned at all in any of the conversations I had about how remarkably, I mean remarkably, well organised this event was. I felt privileged to be part of it.

Still, wherever two, three or several hundred writers shalt be gathered, so shalt there be talk about money.

Of course there is, and if people are making a living through writing, it’s far from a surprise when they think about aiming for certain markets, for doing certain things that appeal to readers. Having the hero in the first chapter of a novel, for instance. Having a happy ending, you know the kind of thing.

Against all these reasonable points and to all of these reasonable and talented people, I say bollocks.

Now, it’s easy to say bollocks over here where it’s just you and me talking. I promise you that I said it while I was there, but I grant you that conversation had a lot more context.

So let me summarise the context for you. Sod the mass market, I argued, and screw happy endings.

I am a full-time freelance writer and at this very moment I should be writing a non-fiction piece I’ve been commissioned to do. It comes with quite a specific brief, a word count, and while it’s not been stated for this piece, the fully sensible expectation is that I will again write in this publication’s style. Or near enough, anyway.

Not only have I no problem with this, I’m enjoying writing it. We’re talking now because I’m taking a tea break on the train I’m on. I need a minute or two to get some slices of tea from the buffet. Do you take sugar?

It’s just this. I think you can go native. You can assume that an editor is not only right in the sense that he or she knows what they want, but that what they say goes for everything. I think you can assume that what the market likes is what is right.

I doubt anyone at Swanwick would believe that there are rules to writing, but they know there are things that tend to work and things that tend to fail.

And I also doubt that any writer anywhere would agree with me about ignoring the market when times are really tight. When you don’t know how you’ll get through the end of the month, it’s impossible to be arty. To write something just because you fancy doing it is just impossible, you’ve got to write things that you know will sell.

Except you never know what will.

When things are that pressured, when you are truly under the cosh and you actually do have a strong clue that something will sell – because you’ve been commissioned to do it, because you’ve sold four books in the same vein before – then do what you have to do.

But also do something that you don’t.

Spend at least a little time writing something that doesn’t work, that doesn’t follow some formatted rules and isn’t going to appeal to anyone other than you.

The worst that can happen is that it will be rubbish, but it’ll be your rubbish, maybe you’ll enjoy it, probably it’ll show you what you’re good at in writing, and definitely it will stop you becoming a typist instead of a writer.

And the best that can happen is that it works.

The trouble with rules and formats is that they are a list of what’s worked before and if there’s anyone who should be breaking new ground, it’s writers.